by Reed Fawell III
For the past six years, I have warned about the damage that unrestrained and hyper-competitive academic research is inflicting on the quality of higher education in the United States. The tenor of my complaints has grown more strident over the years.
Initially, these complaints were jump-started by a May, 2011, memo from University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan to then-Rector Helen Dragas. Sullivan proposed, in my view, to dramatically dilute the education and teaching of undergraduate students at UVa. in favor of radical increases in faculty research, most particularly in STEM research.
UVa.’s ambition, I felt, was unduly driven by several powerful and damaging trends ongoing in higher education. One was UVa.’s compulsion to climb the rankings of US News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” reports, whose standards and formulas demanded ever higher expenditures on non-teaching activities, be they for luxury student accommodations and cuisine food courts or feeding the expanding needs of highly paid tenured research faculty.
A related contributor, in my view, was the Obama administration’s ambition, announced in 2011, to dramatically increase federal funding of academic STEM research. Rather than making American students more competitive internationally in the STEM fields, the STEM emphasis has fueled hyper competition among institutions and faculties chasing federal grants and favors.
Likely, too, this same impulse powered the rise of the “Strategic (Research) Investment Fund” that abruptly appeared in public at UVa for the first time five years later to most everyone’s surprise (although it was hinted at three or four years earlier for legal reasons). However covert, UVa leadership deemed the fund necessary because university research almost always costs more than it generates in revenue. In the business model of today’s research-driven university, universities often divert student tuition and teaching resources to the research of tenured professors.
Not only do students wind up paying higher tuition and get less attention from senior faculty, professors often requisition their personal time and talents for research projects. In effect, students become low-age apprentices whose exploitation helps faculty rake in massive research contracts, profit from patents, and even launch business enterprises based on new technology.
I was worried six years ago that these practices would undermine UVa’s stature as a nationally recognized institution that specialized in teaching undergraduate arts and sciences that armed students to think independently and confidently, whether they are training in politics, philosophy, entrepreneurship, the classics, history, mathematics or physics.
My concerns grew as I observed various pieces of the plan fall into place. More recently, I have become fully convinced that the emphasis on university R&D and STEM research has infected all tiers of higher learning. The siren call of STEM is drawing colleges and universities from their primary and critical mission to empower students to become independent, well rounded, and effective agents of change.
Instead, over these past six years, I concluded that higher education has undermined the ability of students to stand on their own two feet. As early as the mid-1980s, William Bennett, then Head of the National Council of the Arts and Humanities, predicted the demise of the humanities at our elite national universities. He foretold the infection and destruction of traditional courses in the liberal arts and humanities (history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and literature, particularly western literature and the classics) with post-modernist relativism, deconstruction, and critical culture theory. His fears have come to pass.
Academic leftists have weaponized this poison in the form of political correctness, safe spaces, claims of micro-aggression, and politics grounded in race and gender to drive an endlessly growing list of grievances and create a new identity-based hierarchy on the college campus. Much of this ideology has played out in Charlottesville with the UVa administration’s witting connivance, especially in the furtherance of the “epidemic of rape” canard.
Remarkably, efforts to undermine American culture and society went largely unopposed for decades. Leftists have succeeded in hollowing out the center of our culture, and its confidence, and its coherence, and its ability to function. Now it is spreading chaos everywhere. Our institutions of higher learning have, to a marked degree, abandoned not only their roots but their sponsors, their fund-payers, their students, and in some cases the very buildings and spaces they inhabit in their quest for greener fields worldwide.
This they call “Globalism,” which works in tandem with the explosion of research at elite universities to widen the fields of academic research to most everything, and every potential client, under the sun, while ignoring much of America’s past, and its historic culture. Witness Teresa Sullivan’s grand pilgrimage to China, a quest to set up a branch, or perhaps a second main campus, for Mr. Jefferson’s University snuggled up close to the Forbidden City in Peking.
But higher education’s ill-fated embrace of Globalism now runs the risk of leaving the newly constructed university curriculum stranded on shifting sands. The tides are already running out. Newly constructed departments of global arts and sciences are encountering strong counter currents of resistance here and aboard.
Students in other nations, who take great pride in their own histories and cultures, are not always receptive to listening to American professors talk about their institutions. The globalist agenda of American professors is perceived as another form of Western imperialism.
At home, the problem is different. American students increasingly feel left behind. They feel cheated out of their right to learn about their own history, people and culture, before being taught or told to venture out into another peoples’ culture. Indeed, American and European academics increasing agree with their students. Hence globalist courses and departments are contracting, not growing, at a time when the movement has just started.
In short, American’s elite research universities must shift their grand globalist ambitions and research driven plans. Federal research funds are shrinking. Teaching is disappearing. Science itself is under threat. And Americans now want their children educated to live and thrive in the real world, not one invented by other people.
Reed Fawell III, a retired attorney and real estate developer, is an alumnus of the University of Virginia.